Yesterday’s Gourmet

Gourmet 2/72

In 1972 Italy’s appellation system was just about 10-years-old.  Wineries were beginning to bottle wines they’d been selling locally in town centers where people would fill jugs from taps and hoses.  These local specialties were in the process of becoming better and better and better.  This was the beginning of the wines of Italy that we are so fortunate to know today.

Toward the end of May I was able to spend some time with my grandmother who gave me a new old issue of Gourmet Magazine from ’72 .  This is my favorite one yet.  Among the amusing ads, dinner party plans, and refreshingly good writing was a piece by Hugh Johnson, The Wines of Italy- Part 1.  Reading through, I felt privy to a moment in time long after the land that became Italy began making wine and right around the birth of its quality wine production.

The piece begins with a point that, even with modern winemaking, I hope will always be true of most Italian wine, “Noble as their names are, and long as they have been cultivated, most of even the best Italian wines are still cottage industries.”  Though there are certainly regions and producers that are making downright good wines, part of the beauty of Italy is its diversity.  There are so many little towns and regions that are making individually special wines which fit their community and culture in specific and delicious ways.  It is not a question of whether these wines are the greatest in the world- Italian wine is so much more than that.  It is a question of if they are a soulful and enlivened expression of a variety and all that cultivates it.  It is a Schiava that is a Schiava, a Ciro that is a Ciro, an Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone that is exactly that.  They are interesting and contemplative and telling of a history of terroir, people, politics, patterns, cuisine, and all of the idiosyncrasies that follow along.

Johnson uses part one to bring his reader through the North, from west to east, making note of grapes, wines and, in some cases, producers on his path.  For example, he provides a rundown of Piemonte’s “reliable suppliers”: Fontana-Fredda, Franco Fiorina, Pio Cesare, Contratto, Bersano, Damilano, Marchese di Barolo, Borgogno.  And by hearsay: Giulio Mascarello and Francesco Rinaldi.  He says that everything about Barolo and Barbaresco is “massive”, which is an entirely apt descriptor, though I believe that the massiveness of then and the massiveness of now has probably transformed quite a bit.

 Not only are Barbera and Dolcetto mentioned as Piemonte’s other red varieties, but also Freisa and Grignolino, which we rarely hear about.  Such a shame because Grignolino is such a delightful light red; I would drink it any/every day of the week.

Johnson also mentions Spana and it’s homeland around Gattinara and Ghemme, “Though in tiny supply, is really often as good as good Barolo.”  Not to be forgotten!

Running up the road into Valtellina, Johnson talks about Sassella, Grumello, and Inferno, saying they are deep and dark and need to spend a long while in cask before even being considered ready for drinking.  They were not widely available then, and though they are not super available now, there are certainly more accessible and approachable versions of Valtellina’s chiavennasca on the market these days.  Oh how far we’ve come.

Johnson arrives in the Veneto and puts forth that Soave is “possibly Italy’s best white wine”  and that the “narrow green Soave bottle announces a thoroughly civilized experience”.  He acknowledges Valpolicella rosso’s usefulness as an everyday drinkable wine, even if a bit bitter on the finish, but cannot get down with Recioto, the “dark brown pride and joy” of the region.

In Modena, Johnson writes, “Lambrusco, the local specialty, will always remain rather a joke with me.”  I find it impossible to take fizzy red wine seriously.  THANKFULLY, after years and years of phonies, the dry, slightly tannic, palate-cleansing REAL lambrusco has made its arrival on the US market.  Its goodness cannot be denied.

There is more and more, I wish I could read it all to you; shall I?

It is in the introduction that Johnson hits the nail on the head.  That is the nail that, stubbornly, will never fully be hammered into place- the elusive enticement of Italian wine.  A beauty far better experienced and personally understood than explained.

“Can one say that any wine tastes Italian?  I think one can.  Although it seems improbable that a common thread of flavor should run through the produce of a country eight hundred miles long, and even of its offshore islands, there is something- it must be the culture of Italy expressed through one of its ancient artifacts- that Italy’s wines have in common.”

PS- Just a little song.  It’s a nice one for humming.

Au Naturel

Drive-by winter field, Slingerlands, NY

Have you heard of nature deficit disorder?  Usually mentioned in relation to kids these days growing up with a lack of dirt-digging and tree-climbing…it’s a real thing, or so the docs say.

Consider me a believer.  Living in Brooklyn, I crave me some mountains.  Despite NYC’s farmers markets, rooftop gardens, climbing ivy, sidewalk sprigs, Amelia’s fig tree, Edith’s blue bells, rainy day worms, daffodils, ducks, my cactus cultivation attempts, Union Square’s lone magnolia, great big parks, small patches of green, and other blips of nature in between- the vitality of the great outdoors cannot be replicated or dosed out.  It just can’t.  The way it puts our bodies in their most primal rhythm, our minds at unbelievable ease, its pine, birch, moss, spruce, dead grass, live grass, lilacs, and a bit of space for their melancholy scent to travel- are meant to be gulped if we are thirsty, sipped if we feel like going slow.  Mother Earth.  She’s good.

For city dwellers, an entire world of worlds await us at our clumsy doorsteps.  No shortage of inspiration- it almost comes too easily (until, of course, we remember that this is the benefit of living in a city so hard).  And if we’re here, it’s because we love it…or something close enough…

…and I thought of that old joke, you know,

the, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says,

Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken,’

and uh, the doctor says, ‘well why don’t you turn him in?’

And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’

-Alvy Singer, Annie Hall, 1977 

We can have it all.  Except the nature thing- that’s not to be found in an east or west village, on a graffiti-filled borough wall, Minetta, Waverly, Broadway, or Broome- it’s different.

When I begin to feel that… deficit… I open a bottle of wine (surprised?).  If we drink a wine responsibly farmed from a healthy plot of earth, a cure for the Brooklyn blues isn’t such a stretch.  Just a touch of dandelion (rosemary, mint, violet, bark, thyme, sea, sun, and sky too) may do the trick.

Because you can find a forest.  In a 750 ml. bottle.  Perhaps enchanted- dark and brambly, swallowing visitors whole, setting spirits free.  Fermenting witches, princes, dragons, treasure trunks, friendly thieves.  Snow White and her dwarves setting up house in a bottle of Cahors.  Like one of my recent favorites from Chateau de Chambert .  Or Monteforche’s Garganega, made by Alfonso Soranzo- former horn player, current champion of Colli Euganei soil.  Lucky for us, these are just two of the great many wines on the market that can bring us to that natural place.  If we drink them at the right time, on the right day,  we are golden (Steiner! how did you sneak into this fairy tale?  Glad to have you.).

And I’m not talking about “natural wine” here.  Well, actually that’s a total lie.  Natural wine is exactly what I am talking about, but I was going to try not to drive home the dreaded term as I’m in full agreement with the sentiments expressed in this January post from Jeremy (a little potty talk here, but his blog is brilliant).  The core of the topic of natural wine is fully important, but has been beat to so fine a pulp that it may as well be made into true blue denim, proudly worn by every progressive wine geek out there.  We’re all heroes.  We’re all guilty.  It’s better than a market void of awareness, but I think it’s been fleshed out to a point where should take what we will from the conversation and simply make it habit.  Be the change.  Stuff like that.

But I veer…from the trail…which I was hiking along…you should join me…we’ll dine at the top…I packed a bottle of this foggy aligoté …like pleasantly sour honey and small daisies… pollen and particles float in warm sunshine…a nap on a picnic blanket while crickets chirp nearby, and…

Found a lake in the Sierra Mtns. Glimmer.